Unions Are Hugely Popular. Why Aren’t They More Powerful?


Sixty-seven percent of Americans approve of unions, according to Gallup. But just 10 percent of U.S. workers belong to one. Why the disconnect?

In his new book, “The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor,” journalist Hamilton Nolan seeks to explain what he calls “the dizzying potential of organized labor, as well as the heartbreaking flaws that hold it back.”

Nolan is up front about his sympathies. He became a journalist, he writes, “to yell about who society’s villains are.” After joining the online outlet Gawker – “anarchist journalism at its finest,” in his phrase – he covered labor “to promote the concept of eating the rich” and helped unionize his fellow scribes before Gawker went bankrupt.

No doubt Nolan’s advocacy opened doors. He doesn’t interview union opponents, but his portrayals of a handful of successful and failed labor campaigns across the country are nonetheless richly reported, offering alternately inspiring and discouraging lessons for would-be organizers.

Unions do not spend enough money and effort recruiting new members and instead focus on “tending to the small and shrinking walled gardens of their existing membership,” Nolan asserts. He argues that leaders’ disproportionate focus on electoral politics and lobbying Congress for workplace protections, as in the stalled Democratic-sponsored Protecting the Right to Organize Act, is a weak strategy.

Unless worker power is marshaled to counter the nation’s skyrocketing inequality, including through successful strikes, the labor movement’s “broad defeat is only a matter of time,” Nolan writes. “The frogs in the pot may pretend the water isn’t boiling, but it will get them eventually, sure as hell.”

It is a familiar critique. In 1995, John Sweeney, then president of the AFL-CIO, the giant labor federation, called on its affiliates to devote as much as 30 percent of their budgets to organizing new workers, but few did. In the meantime, union density has plummeted by a third.

Other recent books, notably by veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse and by longtime organizer Jane McAlevey, have also explored the history and current predicament of the union movement. But “The Hammer” brings us up to date with ground-level reporting on some of the latest battles, the challenges of covid-era organizing and right-to-work resistance in the South.

Laura Wagner/The Washington Post
Condé Nast employees walk a red-carpeted picket line on Jan. 23 outside the company headquarters in New York during a one-day walkout.

In California, for example, some 40,000 workers, mostly women of color, run small day-care centers in their homes, caring for children of low-wage families. By setting reimbursement rates, the state is their effective employer, but the subsidies had been paltry and benefits nonexistent. Nolan explains how, in 2003, the Service Employees International Union and the United Domestic Workers joined groups of the child-care workers seeking to overturn a state law that barred them from collective bargaining. After four vetoes by successive governors, the law was finally changed in 2019, leading to one of the largest union elections of the 21st century.

The long campaign got little national attention. But despite a raging pandemic, contracts followed, granting hefty pay raises and, for an essential workforce hit hard by covid-19, a retirement fund and health-care trust. It was, Nolan writes in profiling some of the women, a model of “grassroots labor organizing by marginalized and ignored working people, at a staggering scale.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Nolan offers a stark reminder of organizers’ uphill challenge when he describes how South Carolina has throttled labor activism. Just 1.7 percent of the state’s workers belonged to unions in 2022, the lowest density in the United States.

In the 19th century, Charleston was the biggest slave port of the Confederacy, and Nolan ties South Carolina’s present stance to its history. In 1969, civil rights leaders, including Coretta Scott King, traveled to Charleston to support a walkout of Black hospital workers seeking to unionize. South Carolina’s governor mobilized 1,000 state troopers and imposed a citywide curfew. No union was recognized.

Even today, as one Black union official told Nolan, “they are addicted to free labor. Or cheap labor.”

Charleston’s dockworkers have a strong union, thanks to their power over a supply chain hub, but they remain an isolated case. No hotel in that tourist-rich city is unionized. And the state is a haven for companies such as Boeing, BMW, Mercedes, Michelin and Bridgestone looking to escape the collective bargaining they face elsewhere, Nolan writes.

Unions are discouraged, as then-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) explained in 2014, “because we don’t want to taint the water.”

In the private sector, as in other Southern states, South Carolina’s “right-to-work” law allows employees to forgo paying dues in unionized companies, crippling the financial strength of unions. And while public-employee unions, including for teachers, thrive in many states, South Carolina law outright bans public-sector collective bargaining.

“The South is an existential problem for organized labor,” Nolan laments, predicting that industries will continue to migrate and their unions wither. Even labor “successes” he cites across the country come with an asterisk: Unite Here’s culinary workers have sewn up the Las Vegas Strip, but nearby hotels have yet to benefit. The Amazon Labor Union’s victory at a Staten Island warehouse might be “thrilling,” but the upstart has since faltered. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

If much labor news is grim, Nolan can be forgiven for seeking a savior. But in a puzzling choice, he devotes large chunks of the book to a figure whose time in the national spotlight has already passed. Sara Nelson, the glamorous, militant and telegenic president of the Association of Flight Attendants, became something of a movement celebrity in 2019 when she called for a general strike during a government shutdown. In 2020, as the pandemic exploded, she played a key role in crafting a $50 billion airline bailout that reserved half the money for workers.

At the time, Nelson was mulling a run for president of the AFL-CIO, the giant federation of 60 unions. “That project was, in essence, to become the leader of the labor movement and save America,” Nolan writes. But in the end, Nelson didn’t run for the job. She was sidelined by two hip operations, further hampered by the pandemic and all but shut out by 2021 when the insider candidate, Liz Shuler, ascended to the interim position after President Richard Trumka’s death. Shuler would win the presidency in June 2022.

Moreover, Nelson’s biggest challenge, announced in 2019, was a new attempt to unionize 23,000 flight attendants at Delta Air Lines. That effort has yet to succeed.

Lately, other aggressive reformers have gained national prominence, including the Teamsters’ chief, Sean O’Brien, and United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain. Both rose through newly democratic elections at unions previously mired in corruption, and then won big pay raises for tens of thousands of workers using bold tactics.

As Nolan sees it, individual unions are unlikely to muster the tens of millions of American workers needed to counter the shareholder capitalism that thrives on squeezing labor costs. And only a combative, centralized, multibillion-dollar push – which the AFL-CIO has yet to mount – can compensate for laws that allow company “union-busters” to intimidate workers with few penalties.

But “there is no pro-union Delta force,” he writes. “Organized labor is everywhere being out-organized by capital.”